Ellen Johnston’s garden has become a buffet for unwanted guests.
“They’ve been at my beans,” said Schenectady resident Johnston. “You spend so much effort and money on a garden and you wake up one morning and it’s all gone. So I’m at war.”
Chipmunks are the opposition. Their family name is sciuridae, their rank is rodentia and their numbers are in the dozens at Johnston’s home on Ardsley Road.
Other Capital Region homeowners may have noticed more of the agile, energetic mammals on their lawns, in their wood piles, on their fences. They scamper in gardens and dig small, deep holes in the lawn to reach their burrows.
“You want them to be cute, but they’re just so destructive,” Johnston said. “If they would play nice I could enjoy them, but they don’t . . . they’ve got underneath my siding, so God knows what they’re doing. I’m going to wake up some day and they’ll be in my living room.”
Mild winter helped
Wildlife experts at the state Department of Environmental Conservation say the warm temperatures that pleased many people this past winter also pleased chipmunks and their associates in the animal fraternity.
“The mild winter, I think, definitely affected their survival,” said Gordon Batcheller, chief wildlife biologist for the DEC in Albany, of the chipmunk population. “They’re actually a true hibernator. They go under ground, below the frost line, they curl up in a little ball and they shut down for the winter. With our mild weather, any over-winter mortality that might have occurred was probably reduced.”
Cindy Gotobed has seen evidence of an increased presence.
“There are a lot of them over here in Burnt Hills,” Gotobed said. “They’re digging up the lawn and leaving sand piles everywhere they dig a hole. The kids are feeding them — that’s probably the problem.”
Gotobed said she’s seeing fewer squirrels than usual. She is more worried about a ravaging woodchuck than scampering squirrels and chipmunks. “He’s going to get a beat down, if I ever catch him,” she said. “He’s eating my garden.”
Tony Dorazio of Scotia said chipmunks tunneled under a blacktop sidewalk near his home. Their real goal was getting behind the steps leading to the house. “Extremely destructive little animals,” he said.
The DEC does not keep statistics on chipmunk numbers. Batcheller said simple observation of the tan, slender, striped animals can tell people a lot about their summer adversaries.
“For starters, the Eastern chipmunk is one of the most common mammals in our area,” he said. “They’re seen around gardens and homes and rock walls and all of that. But if you go into the woods and you know what they sound like, when you tune your ear to that you hear them all over the place.”
What forest explorers hear, Batcheller said, is an alarm call — a sharp, high-toned chirp.
The abundance of mast last fall — nuts and other food that animals find under trees — along with the mild winter also helped more squirrels prosper. Not so much for rabbits, though. The DEC said that rabbits have such a high mortality rate — even in the best of times — that the agency does not see much variation in population from year to year.
Rabbits have other problems, and they started decades ago. Batcheller said the animals are dependent on young, grassy habitat conditions that are in reduced a state in upstate New York. “So rabbits are not nearly as abundant as other periods in their history when there were a lot of farms, a lot of grasslands, a lot of open fields,” he said.
Batcheller said garden lovers may be limited in their offensives against the chipmunk nation. For one thing, chipmunks are not like motorcycle gangs with many members in a single group. If a couple are in a yard, they could be part of the same family. Chipmunk litters can be eightstrong, according to the Encyclopedia Americana. The animals’ diet includes flower buds, seeds, berries, nuts, eggs from ground nests and even small birds and mice.
Batcheller also said chipmunks like places that give them shelter. Wood piles and rock walls are prime attractors. “If you’re like me and have a rock wall on the back of the garden, I’m basically inviting chipmunks to my garden,” he said.
Because chipmunks are territorial, he added, the first yard settlers deal with intruder chipmunks who try to muscle in on their turf.
“They’re not going to tolerate other chipmunks who are not from that family,” Batcheller said. “They don’t fight. It’s showing aggressive behavior and doing aggressive motions and vocalizations to make the other one unwelcome. If you have one chipmunk, chances are it’s going to keep others away. But if you shoot, trap or remove that one chipmunk, you’ll soon have a new one.”
Trapping a chipmunk for release into the wild is a bad move because it’s illegal.
“In New York state, the law is pretty specific,” Batcheller said. “When you capture wildlife you cannot move it to a new location without permits from the DEC. When you start moving animals around you may be transporting a problem to another location. You may be harming the animal quite a bit because they’re territorial. When you pluck an animal from one location and move it to another, it may not adapt well at all . . . so there’s really nothing to be gained by doing that. And again, the supply is huge.”
Not everyone wants to see the chips go down. Janis Questel of Glenville puts bird seed on her porch; the chipmunks who come to lunch entertain her two kittens, who watch behind the screen door window. “They dig up your bulbs, but we live in the country,” Questel said. “I think we live in their world; I think we kind of have to live with them.”
Peter Bowden, garden expert at the Capital Region’s Hewitt’s garden store chain, said some people will purchase animal repellent sprays to scare off moles and chipmunks. He said Hewitt’s sells a spray made with extract of castor beans.
“Rodents don’t like the smell in the soil, so they just leave,” he said, adding that dog scent will also persuade some small animals to find other garden spots. Other products on the market that may disperse chipmunks include lifelike, movable decoys like owls with light-up eyes; scent of fox urine; and ultrasound machines that produce annoying noises only rodents can hear.
Bowden believes some people give the chipmunks a pass because they are cute. But without the shiny tan coat and distinctive stripe, he said, they’re not so adorable. “They’re kind of like a little baby rat, only fast,” he said.
He said chipmunk fighters can rely on birds — such as hawks and owls — to swoop and steal chipmunks on the run. “I have a couple of cats, so they do their part,” he said of a ground attack.
Cats should stay on the sidelines, according to Batcheller. They shouldn’t even be on the field.
“We don’t encourage using cats to control wildlife,” he said. “We feel cats should be indoors where they don’t harm birds or other wildlife.”
Cats who prowl outdoors, he added, are also in the chipmunks’ danger zone. Foxes and coyotes will prey on both.
That’s one reason chipmunks are always on the move. Instinct tells them that creatures with wings, claws or both might be watching.
“They understand that staying under shelter is important, and minimizing the distance between their shelter and their food supply is important as well,” Batcheller said.
Part of nature
While Johnston may have a serious issue if chipmunks are trying to break into her house, Batcheller has more peaceful advice for people who have only a small number of striped summer visitors in their yards.
“They’re part of nature, they feed other animals, they’re part of the wild world we enjoy watching,” he said. “For young kids, including my daughter at a very young age, the chipmunk was one of the first wild animals she saw and understood and could identify herself at age 2 or 3. In my daughter’s case, that made a difference because she’s now studying biology.”